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Native American Research Lab
hunts answers at the edge of life
Campus to host major
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Native American Research Lab hunts answers at the edge of life
With his right hand gripping the climbing rope, Michael Ceballos crouches on the tilting rock and leans out over the volcanic cauldron of bubbling mud. His black braid is tucked under a blue bandana knotted pirate style. Holding the test tube in a protective glove, he lowers it into the primeval ooze to retrieve a precious sample. The mud pool is boiling and highly acidic. It’s not a friendly environment.
Ceballos (right) helps UM senior Chelsea Morales inoculate a culture in the Native American Research Lab. Morales, a Gros Ventre tribal member, grew up in Harlem, Mont. A “Wall of Fame” of previous students who excelled at NARL can be seen in the background.
For Ceballos, a research assistant professor in UM’s Division of Biological Sciences, collecting the sample marks the start of a long day. He climbs back up the red baked rim of the hot springs deep in the Costa Rican jungle, unhooks from a tree and gets to work.
“If you imagine spending hours in a very hot steamy sauna that smells like rotten eggs, that’s what it’s like,” he says of his fieldwork in Costa Rica and El Salvador.
Most samples contain archaea, single-celled organisms lacking nuclei that live in extreme environments. These ancient life forms may hold secrets to the origins of life on Earth, including how viruses develop. Hyperthermophilic archaea and their viruses have become the primary subject of study at UM’s Native American Research Lab, which Ceballos directs.
During grueling 12- to 16-hour days, Ceballos has collected and prepared samples with meticulous care so they will survive the journey on foot, by rental car over treacherous roads and by plane back to Montana.
To keep the tough, yet fragile archaea alive, Ceballos puts them “in a coma” by raising the pH level just slightly with a calcium carbonate buffer. Raising the pH allows them to lower metabolic processes until he and his team can replicate natural conditions in the laboratory.
Back at his UM lab, flasks containing archaea from El Salvador, Costa Rica, Italy, Japan, Russia and nearby Yellowstone slosh rhythmically in an incubator-shaker set at 176 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the flasks hold uninfected archaeal strains. Others contain cultures of archaea infected with thermotolerant viruses isolated from different sulfuric hot springs worldwide. By studying virus-host interactions at such a primitive level, Ceballos and fellow researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the evolution of virulence and apply this knowledge to the study of emergent infectious viral diseases.
Archaea play another vital research role at the lab as well. In August 2009, Ceballos received a two-year, $300,000, rapid technology development grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate how archaea may hold the key to enhancing efficiency in cellulosic ethanol production. As a promising source for cheap fuel that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil, cellulosic ethanol substrates can be wood waste, grass or a host of other available natural products.
The trick to making cost-effective ethanol that can replace gasoline is to efficiently produce the fermentable simple sugars from cellulose bound in the substrates. But there’s a hitch. Scientists have to separate the cellulose (a complex sugar) from lignin, a complex polymer found in wood, and efficiently convert the cellulose to simple fermentable sugars, such as glucose.
“Think of lignocellulose like matted dog hair you’re trying to tease apart,” Ceballos explains.
Currently, cellulosic substrates are processed with pretreatments such as high-temperature steam explosion and acidic washes to loosen up the ligno-cellulosic matrix. Then, enzymes (proteins that catalyze chemical reactions) such as cellulases and hemi-cellulases are used to deconstruct the cellulose. However, enzymes don’t work well in the heat and acid of the pretreatment processes. Enter heat and acid-loving archaea, featuring enzymes that work best under exactly those kinds of conditions.
Cutting-edge and ancient. Both terms describe what’s happening at UM’s Native American Research Lab, the only one of its kind in the nation, and part of a larger emphasis on Native American education at the University. With the lab’s dual focus on viral ecology and sustainable fuels, the science is relevant to solving today’s most urgent problems. The choice of studying ancient life forms also seems fitting for a lab dedicated to increasing the number of indigenous scientists coming from cultures whose legacy of scientific inquiry dates back thousands of years.
“There’s such a rich heritage of science in pre-Columbian Native America, and yet today Native Americans are the most underrepresented minority group in the sciences,” Ceballos says. “Several Native American cultures prior to the European conquest had strong science education centers. Significant accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, pharmacology, physics and more are part of the historical record, and yet the history of pre-conquest Native American science is not given proper credit or treatment in our modern educational systems.”
Ceballos, whose paternal family is Tepehuan (O’dami) and maternal family is mixed-blood Choctaw/Scottish and Cherokee/French, is passionate in his support for a lab that already has provided hands-on science experience and mentoring to more than 60 students, two-thirds of whom are Native American and represent more than 25 tribal nations. The doors opened at UM in 2007.
Ceballos had the idea of developing a Native-serving lab first as a faculty member at Salish Kootenai College and then at UM, where he secured more than $1 million in grants from NSF and NASA to start the NARL research facility. From his own experience working as a designer and drafter on the NASA space station project while completing his undergraduate degree in physics and math, Ceballos knows the value of hands-on student research experiences in complementing the scientific theory presented in classrooms.
“Unfortunately, most tribal colleges lack access to state-of-the-art instrumentation and faculty with research expertise – particularly Native American science faculty who can serve as research mentors and role models,” he says. “Helping students successfully transfer from tribal colleges to the University was my first goal.”
Today, students work under the mentorship of Ceballos and visiting assistant professor Don Benn (Navajo). Benn is co-directing the lab in 2009-10 to allow Ceballos time to complete his doctoral dissertation on archaea virus-host interactions as part of the degree requirements in the Integrative Microbiology and Biochemistry Program.
“We must have faculty role models who share a similar background with students. It emphasizes to students that science is part of Native American culture, history and heritage,” he says. “And, yet, at the same time, I believe it is very important to also engage non-Native and international students to facilitate cross-cultural exchange and collaboration.”
For Native American and non-Native students alike with an interest in microbiology or biochemistry, what could be better than looking for answers at the edge of where life can exist? While much more time is spent among flasks and petri dishes than leaning over steaming, acidic hot springs, Ceballos strives to make the research tangible and meaningful to students.
On a large wall of the Native American Research Lab, kept toasty warm by the water baths filled with its single-celled study subjects, are two rows of photos. They feature students who have presented research posters at national conferences, who are listed as co-authors on scientific papers or who have completed undergraduate or graduate degrees. Some students have continued on as graduate research fellows, such as Joshua Marceau (Salish), who studies host-virus interactions, and Meredith Berthelson (Blackfeet), now developing mathematical models of thermophile host-virus systems.
“I have a whole other row to add to the Wall of Fame,” says a proud Ceballos. Every photo demonstrates the success of the lab as more Native American students join the ranks of scientists equipped with the tools, experience and high-level learning to succeed and become mentors to the next generation.
— By Deborah Richie Oberbillig
|(Above) UM researcher Michael Ceballos collects a sample from a hot pool of bubbling mud in Costa Rica. His quarry are microscopic archaea such as this one (below) found in El Salvador. The creatures may offer insights into disease virulence or enhancing ethanol fuel production.